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The Hudson Bay Railway

by Leonard F. Earl

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 14, 1957-58 Season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

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Rarely in the record of Canada's events has one project been so much a part of the history of one province as has been the Hudson Bay Railway in Manitoba. Only a few years after it became a province in 1870 the Bay route was proposed. The justification for it was geographical. It was simply that the route through Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait was the shortest possible from prairie wheat fields to world wheat markets at Liverpool and elsewhere in Europe.

This basic fact couldn't be disputed. From it there originated a dream cherished by western farmers who became more enthusiastic about it as prairie wheat production increased. In the Hudson Bay route they saw economic advantages through the saving of a thousand miles of freight transport, and elimination of at least one trans-shipment of wheat cargoes. They may have overlooked navigational hazards of its operation as in fact they did. But they stuck to their convictions and finally forced its construction, and even though there have been disappointments there is still a residue of opinion that sooner or later the Hudson Bay route will be made to work.

Indeed, nearly one hundred years before commercial wheat production started in western Canada the Hudson Bay route was envisaged by intrepid explorers. It may have been in the mind of Henry Hudson who sailed into the Bay in 1610. Certainly it was in the mind of Alexander Mackenzie of the North West Company in the 1780's who thought the future of the West rested on the fur trade, and never dreamed it would become one of the world's greatest areas of grain production. At any rate Mackenzie did work out a plan to utilize the short Bay Route to Europe, unaware of course that his idea would sweep western Canada more than half a century after his death.

In the years immediately preceding Confederation, and after, there were other advocates of an Imperial trade route centering on Hudson Bay. The movement had gained a lot of momentum long before completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. And by a series of strange coincidences, whenever the drive for the Bay route was being most vigorously prosecuted by those who sponsored it, the controversies were intensified by incidents political or economic, sometimes a combination of both, and sometimes of a nature not easily explained. One of these in the early days was an attempt by the Manitoba Government of the day to break a monopoly position of the Canadian Pacific. The attempt was made by granting provincial charters for construction of railway lines to connect with United States lines at the international border. The existing contract of the time with the C.P.R., which in later years was changed, provided that for a period of twenty years no other railway could be built south of its main line. For this reason the Dominion Government disallowed the provincial charters. In the bitter protests which followed, Manitoba put on relentless pressure for a railway to Hudson Bay which it contended couldn't infringe on the C.P.R. agreement.

When the route was first proposed in the 1870's, it stirred up a deluge of ridicule, and often, abuse. Those who spearheaded the drive for construction of the Hudson Bay line were regarded as impractical visionists. The project was often termed a crackpot dream. Indeed more than forty years after it was first proposed many thought it would never be built.

A sample of this opinion appeared in the famous Calgary Eye Opener of Bob Edwards which, in the issue of September 18, 1918, said: "From an Ottawa dispatch we learn that no work will be done this year on the Hudson Bay Railway. We had no idea they were still puttering away on this line. Sir John A. Macdonald started the road in the first place and it is expected Gabriel the Trumpeter will be invited to drive the last spike on Judgment Day."

For color, drama, acrimonious sectionalism, intrigue, conflicting motives, appeals to prejudices, and bitter controversies, the stormy career of the Hudson Bay Railway before a rail was ever laid, was more exciting than its actual construction. This era is a history in itself. Like other movements which sponsor something new and novel the project had to have its crusaders. The Hudson Bay Railway had one who perhaps stood out above all others, Mr. Hugh Sutherland, whom some of you may remember, did more, perhaps, than any other one individual to promote it.

To make clearer the background a mere reference to Mr. Sutherland is not sufficient. As a young man he had made a success of a lumber business in Ontario. He first came to the prairies in 1874 as superintendent of Public Works for the Northwest Territories, an appointment made by the federal Liberal Government headed by Alexander Mackenzie. The Mackenzie government was replaced in 1878 by a Conservative administration headed by Sir John A. Macdonald. Mr. Sutherland's job then ended and he took up permanent residence in Winnipeg. Within a few years he was associated with a number of promotional schemes, one of them the Hudson Bay Railway which he made the great effort of his life.

In 1878 also, a Conservative government headed by John Norquay was elected in Manitoba on a platform which had two commitments for developing the Bay route; one was a promise of provincial help for railway companies to provide communication facilities within the province. This carried at least an implied undertaking of provincial support for a rail link with Hudson Bay. The second demanded an extension of Manitoba boundaries to Hudson Bay. Mr. Norquay and Joseph Royal, one of his strongest supporters, promptly went to Ottawa to press this claim.

The Manitoba request came at a rather critical time. Sir John A. Macdonald, back in power after his reversal in 1874, was anxious for completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway at all costs and equally anxious for its success. There was strong opinion in some quarters that the proposed Hudson Bay Railway posed a threat to the Canadian Pacific. At the same time he couldn't turn down the request of a politically friendly province. His decision was a compromise. He agreed to what territorially was a generous extension of boundaries which increased Manitoba's territorial area five-fold, but all the same it was an extension which kept the northern tip of Manitoba between 200 and 300 miles distant from tidewater on the Hudson Bay. This was in 1881.

What seemed to be another concession to western sentiment had also been made the previous year. By Act of Parliament incorporation charters had been given to two groups, each of which were given powers to build a railway line to Hudson Bay. One charter was obtained by the Nelson Valley Railway and Transportation Company, promoted by eastern interests. The other was given to Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway and Steamship Company, promoted by a number of prominent Manitobans, one of whom was Mr. Hugh Sutherland.

Neither company was ever to build a railway to Hudson Bay, but a lot was to happen before they passed out of the picture. For years Mr. Sutherland was president of the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway and Steamship Company, and also of the company's successors which resulted from change of name and amalgamation. Soon after, he was elected to the Parliament of Canada for the constituency in which he lived at that time which was known as Selkirk.

This political incident is mentioned because the Hudson Bay Railway project itself was swathed by skilful political maneuvering of the day. The charters to the two companies had been granted in 1880, and strange as it may seem, there was scarcely a word of debate in the House of Commons. The farmers of Manitoba interpreted it as a recognition by authority that the project was feasible. Nevertheless, there was an element of suspicion that charters had been granted to two companies, each empowered to carry out the same undertaking. From a financial standpoint their competitive positions would be likely to contribute to failure of both. Maybe the government at Ottawa foresaw this. John A. Macdonald was committed to completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On grounds of political expediency he had to make some gestures of concession to Manitoba pressure, but adroitly avoided formal support for the Hudson Bay Railway.

As might be expected, the two companies with charters to build the Hudson Bay line were soon engaged in furious promotional competition. Both made ambitious gestures but their rivalry minimized the chances of both for getting financial help to carry out their project. In the end, necessity forced their merger.

Pressure for the Bay route continued, and by 1884, Prime Minister Macdonald considered he was ready to make further concessions. The Canadian Pacific was nearing completion. The year before, Mr. Sutherland had been elected as a Liberal candidate in Selkirk. Soon after the rival companies came to terms on amalgamation. Properties and rights of the Nelson Valley Railway and Transportation Company were turned over to the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway and Steamship Company.

The company got a generous land grant which appeared to be enough to bolster its financial structure. Manitoba was now more than pleased, and so was Mr. Sutherland who in 1884 had every reason to be optimistic.

This was in 1884. From then on until 1918 everything went wrong for reasons, some of which were explainable and some were not. In the first place the new position of the company and its big land grant didn't attract the capital required to build the road. The immediate reason was partly economic. Things were booming in the west from 1876 to 1882. Then came a recession period. Wheat prices declined and kept going down for more than ten years. Undaunted by economic conditions Mr. Sutherland sought help from the province and from Ottawa. He finally induced the province to approve a $1,000,000 bond issue secured by the company's land grant. Then the reappearance of Louis Riel and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 temporarily ended chances for financing construction of the railway.

These reasons for Mr. Sutherland's setbacks were obvious enough. But from then until collapse of the Mackenzie and Mann financial empire in 1918, with which in later years Mr. Sutherland had been identified, the reasons for much of what happened were not clear at the time and are not too clear even today. With the end of 1885 Rebellion public interest in the Hudson Bay route did not slacken. There was some actual construction in the mid-80's ending at Shoal Lake which became known as Hugh Sutherland's 40 miles. When application was made to Ottawa for title to a portion of the company's land grant it was refused. The decision for the time being shattered the company's credit. Creditors of the company started lawsuits. Mr. Sutherland running as an Independent in 1887 in Winnipeg was defeated by the Conservative candidate who was also an ardent supporter of the Bay line. In December 1887, Premier Norquay resigned. A Liberal government headed by Thomas Greenway took over in Manitoba and was returned by a big majority in the summer of 1888.

The Greenway government rescinded the bond guarantee given by the previous government to the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway and Steamship Company.

By 1890, Mr. Sutherland at least thought he had negotiated an agreement with London bankers, through which he might get capital to build the road. But from here on the fortunes of the Bay line got involved in a mesh of intrigue, political and financial, and chiefly at Ottawa, which wrecked its chances. Its history between 1890 and 1900 merits more elaboration than this paper permits. Mr. Sutherland kept up valiant efforts to get financial help. At times he seemed on the verge of success, but each time something intervened to wreck his plans. Every conceivable argument and device was employed in the hope of government aid. Even the name of the company was changed to Winnipeg Great Northern Railway, of which Mr. Sutherland was president.

His final effort to finance his dream project was made in 1894 and in 1895 when the Conservative government at Ottawa was on the brink of collapse. And once again he seemed on the brink of success, only to see his work nullified by a combination of business and parliamentary incidents, either carefully planned or the outgrowth of strange coincidence.

It is well known history that what happened in this period was the forerunner of an unprecedented era of western railway building in the west, and started the Canadian Northern Railway system which provided the first part of the Hudson Bay route as it exists today. The first step to usher in this era was a bill introduced in the House of Commons to restore an expired charter of the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company which had been chartered six years before to provide, among other things, a rail line from Portage la Prairie and near-by Lake Manitoba. The charter had been amended in 1892 to extend to Lake Winnipegosis. The 1895 bill empowered construction to the Saskatchewan River.

In the same session of Parliament a belated move was made to help Mr. Sutherland's Winnipeg Great Northern Railway Company. As it turned out, the assistance granted really accrued to the benefit of Mackenzie and Mann. Dan Mann picked up the charter of the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company. Soon after his partner William Mackenzie, who was a master in skillful negotiation, induced the Manitoba government to give him a bond guarantee. By the end of 1896, a railway line had been built from Gladstone to Dauphin and was operating trains to Winnipeg over what was known as the Manitoba Northwestern Railway. The next year the line was extended to Winnipegosis. With this construction the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company, whose charter as stated before had been acquired by Dan Mann, had met the requirements which entitled it to benefits of the transport contract approved by Ottawa two years before. This deal was the genesis of the Mackenzie and Mann empire and their Canadian Northern Railway. And to the degree it was a success for them, it was the final defeat for Hugh Sutherland. It ended his hope of connecting Winnipeg with tidewater on the Hudson Bay. In 1899, a new government was in power at Ottawa. Parliament accepted an application for merger of the Lake Manitoba Railway and Canal Company with the Winnipeg Great Northern, under the name of the Canadian Northern Railway.

Mr. Sutherland didn't immediately surrender, but when circumstances finally forced him to accept what he had been unable to avert, he became general agent of the Canadian Northern in Winnipeg, and his fortunes thereafter rose and fell with those of Mackenzie and Mann. He left Winnipeg in 1918 to live in England until his death in 1926.

The reason for devoting so much time to the early history of the Hudson Bay Railway is simply that it had so long been a dominant political and economic issue in Manitoba. From the late 1870's, there had been continuous pressure and clamour for building it. At intervals, the project had considerable support in eastern Canada. Indeed, public interest never abated until shortly before 1900 when the long cycle of farm depression came to an end and started the western boom which continued until outbreak of the First World War. Farmers were more or less pacified by better prices of wheat, and by the reduction of freight rates on grain resulting from the Crow's Nest Agreement and the subsequent agreement of 1901 with the Canadian Northern Railway.

But it wasn't long before prairie farmers resumed the pressure. Wheat production was increasing. The railways couldn't provide adequate transportation facilities to keep up with it. More outlets were needed for prairie wheat, at least, that was the argument of western farmers. Thus was revived with even greater force than ever before the movement for the Hudson Bay route. The new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were admitted to the Confederation in 1905. In their first elections all parties were pledged to support the Hudson Bay route. Its construction couldn't be delayed until Mackenzie and Mann had built a Canadian Northern line to the Saskatchewan River, which was one of the earlier imposed conditions.

Mackenzie and Mann soon after 1900 extended a line west from the Manitoba boundary to Prince Albert. From any point along a considerable mileage of the route a line could be run north to the Saskatchewan River. The northern terminus chosen was The Pas, then little more than a mere trading post. The southern terminus selected was Hudson Bay Junction, now known as Hudson Bay, a tiny hamlet in Saskatchewan twenty-seven miles west of the Manitoba boundary. The most direct route would have been from a point at or near Mafeking in Manitoba. The fact that the Canadian Northern had already qualified for a land grant to a point forty miles west of Mafeking dictated the choice of Hudson Bay Junction as the southern terminus.

At the 1907 session of Parliament, the Hudson Bay route was one of the principal topics of debate. Sir Wilfred Laurier, heading the liberal government of the day, obtained dissolution late in 1908. The major issue of the election, at least for the West, which by now was exerting its political power, was the Hudson Bay route. During the campaign the prime minister announced the intention of his government to build the Hudson Bay Railway. He also announced that surveyors were already in the field.

In the meantime, Mackenzie and Mann were building their Canadian Northern line from Hudson Bay Junction north. They had started in 1906 and eighty-eight miles were completed and put into operation to The Pas in 1910. From The Pas north the work was undertaken by the Government of Canada under direction of the Department of Railways and Canals. Surveys, as 'Sir Wilfred Laurier had announced in the election campaign, had started in 1908 to locate a route to Churchill and later an alternative route to Nelson. The route to Nelson was about sixty-seven miles shorter.

In 1910, the construction started of a bridge over the Saskatchewan River at The Pas. In 1911, a contract for the first 185 miles of the railway was let to J. D. McArthur, a well-known Winnipeg railway builder who had work crews on the route before the bridge was completed. The Laurier government was defeated in the 1911 election, succeeded by a Conservative government headed by R. L. Borden. The minister of railways in the new government, shortly after having been sworn in, issued an order to halt construction work. Soon after, he announced in Parliament that despite lingering personal doubts he would yield to pressure from both sides of the House and the Hudson Bay Railway would be completed as fast as possible.

At the time it appeared the Hudson Bay Railway had the green light for early completion, but, as a matter of fact, another eighteen years was to pass before the steel got to its present terminus at Churchill. In the first place the matter of extension of Manitoba boundaries promised in the Conservative platform of 1911 hadn't been settled. It was settled, however, early in 1912 and Manitoba got the coast line on which was located both Port Nelson and Churchill. Before this, the Province of Ontario had put up determined resistance to the allocation of both ports to Manitoba. It argued that the lines be arranged to give Port Nelson to Ontario.

With this matter settled as between the provinces there remained the vexatious question as to which one should be the terminus of the railway. Since 1880, there had been controversies as to relative merits of the two harbours. Several official expeditions had been assigned to examine the two ports but they did nothing to make clear what the decision should be. Most of them had paid more attention to navigation possibilities of Hudson Strait. Some recommended Nelson, and others, Churchill.

In the latter part of 1912, it was decided that Port Nelson was to be the northern terminus. The construction started in 1911 went ahead, and the grade and bridge structures were completed to Nelson in 1918. The distance was 424 miles. Track was laid and ballasted to the crossing of the Nelson River at Kettle Rapids. This was at mile 332, a short distance north of Gillam.

The line was operated between The Pas and Gillam until financial dislocations caused by the First World War limited maintenance and operation to mile 214. In this period, construction of harbour facilities started at Nelson. Finally, all work both on the railway and the harbour was suspended in 1918. At end of the fiscal year in 1918, the government of Canada had spent 20.2 million dollars on the project, of which 6.3 million was in terminal development at Nelson. Eastern newspapers had violently opposed the project from the time construction started. One of them said editorially that the government was throwing money at icebergs, seals and polar bears.

Considering the intensity of the pressure by prairie farmers for construction of the line, it might have been expected there would be violent protest against suspension of the work. As a matter of fact there was very little. The financial situation was abnormal, and western farmers probably thought that as soon as they were restored to a more stable keel, work on the railway would be resumed. Had they thought there would be another ten years' delay, they probably wouldn't have been so easily appeased at the time, wheat prices were high; they had little reason for protest economically and naturally interest in the Bay route subsided.

By 1921, advocates of the Bay route started to clamour for completion of the railway. Finally, in 1926, a new Liberal government decided to complete it. By this time, the lines built by Mackenzie and Mann had been absorbed in the Canadian National Railway system. Arrangements were made with the Canadian National Railways to restore the dilapidated track to Gillam, and at the same time to undertake surveys to determine whether a feasible route could be located to Churchill. The present consulting engineer of the Canadian National Railways in Winnipeg, Major J. L. Charles, who had charge of the original surveys to Nelson in 1913, was assigned to locate a route to Churchill. Preliminary surveys were made in the winter of 1926-27. Major Charles reported it would be practical to build a line over the extensive muskeg areas north of Limestone River at mile 350.

But decision was still to be made on the northern terminus of the line. In the summer of 1927, the government engaged Sir Frederick Palmer, an eminent British consulting engineer, to investigate comparative merits of harbour facilities at Churchill and Port Nelson. Palmer's report strongly recommended Churchill. On the basis of it plans were made immediately to abandon Nelson and extend the rail line north to Churchill.

Palmer's preliminary report was submitted to Ottawa in August 1927. Only a few days after, Major Charles was again instructed to confirm under summer conditions results of the investigations he had made the previous winter. A party of four with minimum equipment and rations walked over the route between the Nelson and Churchill Rivers. In the fall, a larger party was organized with sixty dogs for transportation to run the final location from the Limestone River to Churchill. The job was done on foot and by dog team and completed in April, 1928. There was no aircraft nor aerial photography such as exists today, but Major Charles in a comparatively recent paper on "Railways in Relation to Development of Canada's Northlands" records that drills for foundation investigation were flown from Cache Lake near Gillam to Churchill by the famed Norwegian Colonel Balchen, and by Captain Stevenson after whom the present Winnipeg airport was named.

There were no more delays in building the Hudson Bay Railway. Some grading was done in 1928. The track was laid on frozen muskeg. On March 29, 1929, it reached Churchill. Most of the ballasting was done in the summer of 1929.

This in summary is an attempt to record the stormy story of the Hudson Bay Railway. Its length from The Pas to Churchill is 510 miles. Its general direction is northeast from The Pas for 356 miles and then about due north. It traverses three types of terrain; for the first 87 miles a limestone formation with a slight overburden of clay; for the next 269 miles through fairly rugged country of Pre-Cambrian formation, with a fairly heavy overburden of clay and in places muskeg; and the last 154 miles over the watershed between the Nelson and Churchill Rivers built almost entirely on muskeg with an underlay of permafrost. Snowfall is not heavy and presents no difficulty. In fact, it is seldom necessary, according to Major Charles, to operate a snow-plough between Gillam and Churchill. No unusual difficulties have ever been encountered in its maintenance or operation.

This reference to snow prompts a wholly irrelevant reference to a point in Canada's transportation system where snow is a problem. At a meeting of road builders in Winnipeg in January this year G. B. Williams, Chief Engineer of the Federal Public Works Department, pointed out that one of the big problems on the British Columbia section of the Trans-Canada Highway was going to be how to keep the Rogers Pass section clear of snow and protect traffic from hazards of snow slides in the avalanche-prone area. The annual snowfall in Rogers Pass, Mr. Williams said, is four hundred inches, a little better than thirty-three feet.

Reverting to the Hudson Bay Railway, it must be said that the great expectations of the interests which so persistently fought for it have not been realized. It may be that in future years they will be. The short navigation season has been the big handicap.

Traffic, however, has increased every year. Last year, Churchill had its biggest season. Upwards of seventeen million bushels of grain were delivered for shipment to Europe. Mining in the north seems on the verge of unprecedented development. It is possible that other vast projects may spring up as traffic feeders. Before many years there is likely to be an all-weather highway to Churchill. But for heavy bulk transportation, such as grain, the Hudson Bay Railway will be essential if navigation hazards are overcome to assure a longer shipping season. In a limited way it has become an important factor in national defence, and it might become vitally important in years ahead.

Certainly, the interests which fought so hard to get it haven't given up hope. In the years before its completion, one of these groups was the On-To-The-Bay Association formed in Winnipeg in 1924. At its organization meeting there were 1,500 delegates, some from the United States.

The On-To-The-Bay Association continues today as the Hudson Bay Route Association. This organization is making valiant endeavours to promote traffic for the railway line. So far, on the sea route, the traffic has been dominantly one way, outgoing cargoes of grain. The railway itself has rarely made operating expenses, although it may have broken even or nearly so in a period during the Second World War.

Two or three generations of farmers fought to get it, and now that they have it, it may be that future generations may find ways to make it profitable. At any rate, they will be living in a world in which science and technology have reorganized the ways and standards of human life and have added enormously to facilities for human endeavour. So it might not be an extravagant forecast to say that the not-too-distant years may make the Hudson Bay Railway and the shorter route to Europe the kind of project its promoters dreamed it would be.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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